Grilling heat temperatures for charcoal grill


It's easy to achieve your ideal grilling temperature, even with charcoal.

As a rule of thumb, you'll want to create a bed of coals that extends 3” over on each side of the food you will be cooking.  Deciding how much charcoal to use is more of a “by feel” kind of thing.

Deciding how much fuel is needed when it comes to charcoal isn’t an exact science. Grilling steaks requires a different level of heat and duration of time than smoking a tasty brisket. Therefore, the approach differs from grilling to smoking. Smoking is about "low and slow" while cooking some steaks or chicken breast is about searing and then quickly finishing off the meat with indirect heat. We'll discuss the use of direct and indirect heat in just as second.

Here’s a quick guideline of how much charcoal you should use to reach the level of heat you desire.

How much charcoal do i need?

Charcoal briquette temperature guide

how much charcoal do i needBelow is a quick chart to give you an idea of how much charcoal you will need to reach the temperature you want. The following is based on a traditional chimney which will hold around 100 coals.

25% Chimney

Low Heat 250° -- 350° cooking fish or adding coal to light the smoker box

50% Chimney

Medium Heat 350° -- 450° tailgate foods: burgers, hotdogs, brats, etc.

75% Chimney

Medium High 400° -- 450° Ideal grilling temperature

100% Chimney

High Heat 450° -- 550° ideal temperature for searing steaks

How do I know when the heat is right for grilling with charcoal?

Unless you have a fancy heat thermometer you can use the trusty “hand method”.

HANDS-ON heat testing method

testing grill heat with handHow does it work?

Hold your hand over the fire until you can’t anymore and Voila!, you’ve measured the temperature.

Sounds more like a dare than a method to test whether you’re ready to cook or not, but it works. Below is a chart to show heat levels based on how many seconds you can keep your hand above the grate.


2 -- 3 seconds 450° -- 600°


4 -- 5 seconds 350° -- 450°


6 -- 7 seconds 325° -- 375°


8 -- 10 seconds 250° -- 325°


10 - 15 seconds 200° -- 250°

Using your hand will help you measure the heat temperature of your grill. The chart shows how hot your grill is based on how many seconds you can hold your hand over the coals.

Disclaimer: coals burn hot, so be sure not to burn yourself in the process of conducting this test.

How to arrange your coals

Next, is deciding how to lay out the coals. The position of the coals will dictate how much heat will be generated, and for how long.

Spreading the coals thin to cover a large area will result in lower temperatures; additionally, the heat will dissipate fairly quickly as the coals begin to burn down. If you have a dense layer of charcoal the grill will burn hotter, longer.

Direct & Indirect Heat

direct & indirect heat grillingDirect heat is used for searing or cooking thin meats. Indirect heat is used to bring the meat to the ideal cooked temperature without burning it. The method shown above is known as the “two zone” fire. It is the most effective layout as it offers versatility and will work for grilling most anything. 

Smoking Meat Heat Layout (Parallel)

smoking meat charcoal layoutSpreading coals across opposite sides of the grill, while leaving an area free of coals in the center.  The ideal method for cooking meat over the area free of coals, while offering a lasting burn. To maintain the ideal temperature (200 – 230) within the grill you’ll need to add about half a dozen coals after the first hour of smoking, and every hour (or two) after that.

Snake method layout

charcoal heat snake methodThis is a fun layout to impress your buddies, but it’s also effective. You layout charcoal in a spiral pattern (around the inside outer edge of the grill) mixed in with wood chips. Then you add in a few hot coals to one of ends of the snake which start the slow burning light.  This allows for an even smoke without the need to worry about wood chips catching of fire and burning up.

This method works well when using wood chips or wood chunks.

You will likely need about 80 – 100 coals to complete the snake, then add in about 5 – 10 lit coals to get it started. Depending on what you’re smoking, you’ll likely need to add a few more coals as needed to maintain temperature.
  • Jacob says:

    It never fails: when I have friends over, hungry and ready to eat I can never maintain the correct temperature and everyone sits around and waits for me to pull off the food, add more coals and then wait to put the meat back once the coals have become fully lit..

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